Chiagoziem “Chy” Nwakanma is getting used to being stopped by admirers telling her how they just saw her on TV and wanting a word, then a picture. She doesnâ€™t get mobbed often yet, apart from the few times she has given pep talks at secondary schools in Lagos.
The kids love her, as Instagram videos attest to. Maybe they identify with her because of her youthful looks; sheâ€™s in her mid-twenties but has acted as a secondary school student, convincingly looking 10 years younger than she is.
The young, fresh look translates to – or perhaps, is a result of â€“ an optimistic, can-do attitude ready to challenge the status quo, which is reflected in how she refers to herself as â€˜President of the New Schoolâ€™, or her preference (if not insistence) in being referred to as an actor, rather than an actress.
â€œLetâ€™s not make it a gender thing,â€ she says, the smile on her lips barely concealing the steely resolve conveyed in her voice. â€œAn actor is an actor. I know thereâ€™s a word called an actress but I feel like in the beginning it was an actor A doctor is a doctor, a president is a presidentâ€¦â€
Whatâ€™s with the President of the New School hashtag? â€œItâ€™s a new school of thought. A breed of a new generation that think differently because most of our problems, even as a country, are because of how we see things and nothing is going to change until our mind-set changes.
â€œYou can achieve anything you want if you think fresh positive thoughts. Times are changing. In the past, it was difficult to proudly say youâ€™re an actor. But now itâ€™s being more accepted because you can use it to better society.
â€œI tell people that I save lives too, just like a doctor. Back in school, we had this particular stage show and afterwards, a colleagueâ€™s grandma came up to us and was full of thanks because she hadnâ€™t laughed like that for years since her husband died. So itâ€™s therapy for a lot of people.â€
One of the most important lessons she has learnt as an actor is to be open-minded and avoid being judgmental. â€œThe first rule in the game is that when you get a character, you never judge that character, even if the character is a â€˜badâ€™ person. You have to find a motive behind why that character is the way it is.
â€œSo the new school is about using this art, or whatever power you have, to make this world a better place. No matter what field youâ€™re in, you have that power, you just have to find your strength and use it. Thatâ€™s what the new school is about.â€
Born in Abia State, Chy moved to the United States with her parents when she was 11. At 16, she was already modelling commercially, which preceded her training in theatre.
â€œThe agency at that time advised against being a one-trick pony, and not to box ourselves in. Some others at the agency were singers or dancers but I decided to try acting.â€ This seemed a logical choice because she had previously been successful in re-enacting movie roles for fun.
Once she gave acting a shot, she was convinced it was what she really wanted to do. â€œIt came with a form of expression, almost like being able to step into someone elseâ€™s shoes. Things I canâ€™t do in real life are things I look forward to doing in movies. I love being able to explore different things outside of who you are.â€
However, she still proceeded to study Pharmacy in college because in her words, â€œI come from a family where most of my cousins are in the medical field and I didnâ€™t want to be the odd one out.â€
It didnâ€™t take long to alter course though. â€œAfter the first year, I figured that would not work because I would rather go to auditions than go to classes. If I continued like that, I would have probably flunked all my classes. So I decided to switch to Acting as a major and took Communication as a minor to balance it a bit and make the parents happy.â€
It was a decision that has given her utmost satisfaction. â€œActing is something I love doing. Honestly, I donâ€™t think I can do anything else as well as what Iâ€™m doing right now. I feel this is where I need to be. I love storytelling, I love watching people, I love character building, I just love everything that comes with the whole process of making a project.â€
While in College, she participated in various stage productions from Shakespeareâ€™s Twelfth Night to Toni Morrisonâ€™s The Bluest Eye. â€œWe had four stage plays a year. And people actually paid to see them because they were proper stage plays.â€
Twelfth Night was especially memorable. â€œIt was the most challenging. It was a lead role, I had to play both a guy and a girl and the lines were Shakespearean. Everything about that play was challenging but it was one of the most fulfilling plays Iâ€™ve ever done.â€
Armed with her Bachelorâ€™s degree, Chy returned to Nigeria in 2015 to take a shot at the film industry which she had studied from afar and had seen grow in leaps and bounds, rather than go to Los Angeles, the capital of the film industry in America.
â€œThe goal when I was in school was to do film. I still love stage and if I could do one stage production a year, that would be a blessing. But the year before I graduated, I prayed about it and that clarity came. When I finally came back, I landed a lead role in This Is It and from there, my career took off,â€ she said.
Landed a role? Just like that? Chy is laughing now. She realises she has to explain the process. â€œWhen I made the decision to come to Nigeria in my final year in university, I watched a lot of Nigerian content and I knew a lot of the directors I wanted to work with and Lowla Dee was one of them. Later, while I was working on a stage play in Nigeria, one of my friends brought a Lowla Dee audition notice to my attention and I jumped at the opportunity.
â€œI really prepared for the audition. I knew my lines, did my script breakdown and all. And that worked to my advantage because one of the things Lowla Dee said to me after my audition was â€˜thank you for knowing your linesâ€™ because most of the actors that came were just trying to learn their lines there but I came with mine memorized. I was prepared for the audition and I think thatâ€™s what helped me land the role.â€
While This Is It was her television debut and the main catalyst of a budding career, Chy has a few stage credits under her belt and more importantly â€“ considering film is here focus now â€“ screen credits including Hustle ( on Mnet), Life101 (Ebony Life TV) and On the Real Season 2 (Ebony Life TV).
There are also starring roles in movies produced by Iroko TV and Accelerate TV, with Corper Shun the latest release on the latter. Her first appearance in a cinema movie is a little over a month old; Disguise is in cinemas across the country. Acting in a movie directed by Desmond Elliot and starring household names like IK Ogbonna, Nancy Isime, Toyin Aimakhu Abraham and Wale Ojo is testament to her rising trajectory.